Fort Major Thomas Austin, Sr. and Early Insights into the Class Crinoidea (Phylum Echinodermata)

Bill Ausich (Department of Geological Sciences, Ohio State University)

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

7 March 2000


By 1855 and earlier, Fort Major Thomas Austin, Senior had anticipated aspects of crinoid taphonomy, functional morphology, encrinites, etc. that were way ahead of his time.  None of his insights were published.

Born in England in 1794.  Died in Bristol in 1881.

He was called “Old Stick Leg” after his leg was shot off in Holland in 1813.

He was made Fort Major at Fort Duncannon, in Ireland, which is in the Hook Head Peninsula area.  It evidently wasn’t too strenuous a job, as he began collecting fossils in the Hook Head area while stationed at Ft. Duncannon.

The Hook Head area in Ireland has the 2nd oldest lighthouse in all of Europe.  Hook Head also has nice Lower Carboniferous bedding plane surface (Hook Head Formation) with a good crinoid fauna in it.  Austin collected the Hook Head crinoid fauna in the 1820s and 1830s.

Austin, Jr. (his son) did the plates for the fossil monographs.

Austin and Austin did publish on fossil and recent crinoids - the monograph was issued in parts.  Some parts were issued, but there were parts written and prepared and plated up that were not published, though.  This unpublished material has been recently found and recognized for its historical and scientific value.

Ausich found unpublished material intended to be part of Monograph on Recent and Fossil Crinoids: 1) a 6 page, handwritten manuscript that was undated; 2) a 30 page, handwritten manuscript that was dated 3 January 1855; 3) 45 plates, hand-drawn by Austin, Jr., apparently.  The finds included “photographs” of crinoid fossils, possibly the oldest photos ever of crinoids or fossils in general.

Miller (1821) was the first crinoid treatise published.

The newly discovered material dates from between Miller (1821) and Quenstedt & Pictet from the mid-1800s.

Austin’s manuscript material was written before 1855 and was obviously conceived before this.

Austin had sound insights on the evolutionary trends in the class of crinoids.  Austin was a natural historian who recognized that there were trends and changes in the history of fossil groups before Darwin (1859).  This sort of pre-Darwinian insight was called “directionalism”.

Austin recognized the significance of the end-Permian extinction on crinoids.  He recognized the trend of plate reduction through the Phanerozoic.  He recognized good gradations between morphologies (evolutionary gradualism) from genus to genus and from species to species within a group.

Austin also acknowledged extinction.

Had Austin’s entire monograph been published, he would have established a total of only 34 genera, but these 34 genera would be now split into many more genera.

Austin’s collections were destroyed in the 1940s during the Blitz.

Austin’s manuscript (sans plates and photographs) is being published in a future issue of Earth Science History.



Ausich et al. (1999) - Middle nineteenth-century crinoid studies of Thomas Austin, Sr. and Thomas Austin, Jr.; newly discovered unpublished materials. Earth Sciences History 18(2): 180-197.





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